Why aren't there more lawyers on boards?

The UK should follow the US's example.

A report studying the rise of so-called "lawyer directors" in the USA Today came to my attention recently. The academic study found that lawyers have become increasingly prevalent on corporate boards; as of 2009, 43 per cent of US companies had lawyer directors on their boards; rising from 24 per cent back in 2000. Indeed the authors of the paper opine that a company with a lawyer on its board has a corporate value typically 9.5 per cent higher than a company without and empirically performs better.

Appointing lawyers onto boards helps to reduce external legal risks whilst also improving internal corporate governance. In the USA there is a dawning realisation that lawyers make valuable board-level directors, as the statistics attest, and a cultural shift is well and truly underway.

In the UK however the boardroom narrative is markedly different. There are only 14 lawyers acting in any capacity on the boards of the FTSE 100 and only 20 qualified lawyers currently on boards of the FTSE 250. Very few general counsels or partners of law firms are making the step up to boardroom level and it begs the question, why this disparity between the US and UK? It is clear that there is a negative mindset amongst CEOs and chairmen of public companies in the UK concerning lawyers serving as executive or non-executive directors on boards. Part of this apprehension stems from the notion that lawyers are skilled craftsmen but not capable of managing businesses nor bringing anything other than endless polemic to boardroom discussions. There also exists a misconception that Limited Liability Partnerships (LLPs) are run as siloed businesses, but in today’s globalised business world large law firms are increasingly run in a form very similar to those of public companies, therefore partners are increasingly required to possess managerial skills to run an LLP successfully. Take my own career as a prime example; as Co-Chief Executive of DLA Piper I have not practiced law for years – my role is strategic and managerial, focussed on the day to day business of developing a global law firm.

The notion that lawyers do not possess the requisite skill set to sit on boards is a patent farce.  I would argue that lawyers have a lot to offer beyond their self-evident legal expertise (whilst not denigrating this offering). Most lawyers generally have the vitally important ability to absorb vast reams of complicated and granular information. Not only does this enable he or she to then précis this information into a clear 'big' picture, it is an essential skill for any board level non-executive (or executive) if he or she is to offer any value-enhancing interpretation of the business.

However at present, deconstructive analysis and corporate governance scrutiny is not always what a UK CEO looks for when considering the makeup of his or her board. Perhaps it is time that public companies started to consider more carefully the benefits of appointing analytical thinkers with a risk-averse and best practice approach to corporate governance. A lot of companies could do with a little more probity of that ilk. Lawyers seeking board level appointments must for their part look to expand their exposure to boards of all kinds, be they businesses, schools, local councils or charities, in order to gain more people management experience and learn to think less like a lawyer and more like a business person. Perhaps then we shall see more lawyers on boards and a cultural shift akin to the US will manifest itself here in the UK.

Photograph: Getty Images

Co-CEO of DLA Piper

Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images
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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage